The UK’s regional museums and galleries have had a tough time of it in recent years. They’ve suffered swingeing budget cuts, disappearing donors, and an exodus of expertise.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that museums have looked to Arts Council England as a potential knight in shining armour, ready to act as the funder of last resort for the nation’s culture. This week’s announcement of a huge £409m per year funding package for the arts from 2018–22 – the National Portfolio announcement – led some museum directors to hope for a rescue package for museums.
What actually happened in Tuesday’s announcement wasn’t exactly that. ACE has neither the resources nor the inclination to spend money in areas where others (local authorities for instance) are abandoning cultural services. But ACE did make a big strategic decision to radically increase the number of small and medium-sized museums receiving funding for the 2018–22 period. Previously, ACE has only provided annual funding to the largest non-national museums in England, such as Birmingham, Leeds and York, while small and medium-sized museums have been restricted to bits of project and development funding.
With this week’s announcement, innovative museums in places like Preston, Poole and 40 other locations are receiving NPO funding for the first time. This is an attempt to rebalance ACE’s spending towards museums outside of England’s major cities – but crucially, to places which already have a strong cultural strategy. In Barnsley, for example, the council’s investment in creating a new museum in the town hall has been rewarded with substantial visitor numbers, high levels of community engagement – and now national funding to help build on its success.
The decision to broaden out the portfolio of museums is undoubtedly a product of the wider concerns about a sector facing huge changes. But notably, this move has not come at the expense of larger cities’ museums. The majority saw their funding at a standstill. To pull off this feat, ACE has actually increased its spending on museums by some £10m per year, enabled by a combination of lottery funding and the successful defence of its budget in the 2015 spending review.
This has undoubtedly made it easier for ACE to spread its money around – and it begs the question of where ACE’s priorities might lie if there were to be a retrenchment in the public finances in the next funding round. But for the moment, museums will look upon this not as a rescue package, but as a sound investment for the next four years.